‘Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach; those who can neither do nor teach become wine critics.’
I often send petitions of thanks to the Irish god Lugh that I did not pursue a career in winemaking, because sure as Lugh made little green shamrocks, I would have failed. As a gardening geek, I have O but not so much the CD—I tend to throw seeds anywhere I feel like throwing them and simply wait to see what happens.
As a viticulturist, you can’t really get away with that—some vines grow better, some worse, in specific spots. That’s due to a number of factors—hillside exposure, sunlight, adequate moisture from rain or run-off, proper air and water drainage—and each varietal has its bucket list of personal needs. But even when all the stars have aligned, results may in fact be un-stellar.
That leaves a grumbling gleaner of grapes with another consideration: Dirt.
Rooting Out the Problems…
‘Vineyard soil is the unseen dankness where the vineroots suck…’
– Hugh ‘Maybe I’m Not So Smart After All’ Johnson
The ground geology of a given vineyard begins with bedrock and ends with soil, with a whole lot of terraforming going on in between. In brief, the parent material and the mineralogy which results lays a coal-and-ice foundation for that overused—and often misused—word ‘terroir’; the way that the French describe ‘a sense of the place’.
Nobody questions that wine absorbs specific chemical nutrients from subsoils weathered from specific types of bedrock—or that twelve of the sixteen essential elements required by wine grapes come from the ground.
How these elements ultimately inspire flavors in your wine glass is a science with somewhat less authority. That soil affects grape quality is not arguable, with depth, pH, salinity and particle size all playing a role in producing healthy fruit. But how much of that translates into aromatics, and by default, flavor, divides wine scholars into separate camps.
Me, being a wino, not a scholaro, can give both sides their dues. Both sides make perfect sense to me—which is why I never get picked for jury duty. Prosecutor makes his case, I thrust out my down-turned thumb and shout, ‘Fry the mofo!’; then the Defense has their shot and I immediately scream, ‘Attica! Attica!’
In other words, I am a pushover.
Before we get into the debate, here is an ABC aperçu of the world’s most significant wine grape soils:
Alluvial: Generally found in valleys and at the base of hills, these soils contain a lot of organic material (alluvium) deposited from running rivers; such soils are extremely fertile and generally layered, since different current speeds cause different deposit conditions. Most of the soils in Alsace are alluvial, although a distinction is seen in individual vineyards based on their elevation.
Basalt: Volcanic soil, high in trace elements like calcium, iron, and magnesium; they readily absorb heat and generally generally have a high cation (positively-charged ion) exchange capability, enhancing the vine’s ability to absorb nutrients. Basaltic soils can be found in Sicily, Santorini, Israel’s Golan Heights, the Deccan Plateau of India, southeastern Australia and the U.S. Pacific Northwest.
Calcareous: Whereas purely alkaline soils with a pH > 8.5 offer poor structure and an inhospitable agricultural environment, the presence of plant-accessible calcium carbonate—the the principal chemical component of limestone—offers balance to acidic soils and improves water retention in droughts and water drainage in floods, making it one of the most highly sought after soils in the wine world. Indeed, although it is rare in California (some exists in the west side of Paso Robles), the great vineyards of Champagne, Chablis, the Loire, southern Rhône and Bordeaux’s Saint-Emilion are rich in limestone.
Chalk: The roots of a grape vine cannot penetrate solid limestone, but chalky soils are made of porous limestone; such soils are prized for their drainage, not necessarily for their fertility—most need the addition of organic matter to grow world-class grapes. Pure chalk soils are rare, and tend to produce wines that are high in acid. You find them in areas of Champagne, Jerez (Spain’s Sherry country) and especially Cognac, where the wine is too sour to drink, but distills into the iconic brandy.
Granite: Prized for its quartz content (up to 60%), granitic soils are well-drained and seem to lend a quality of freshness, beguiling juiciness and bright acidity to wines in which they’re grown. Sound like Beaujolais? It should; the southernmost appellation of Burgundy contains some of the most concentrated granite soils on earth, especially in the area producing Cru Beaujolais. Other granite hot-spots are Germany’s Rhône Valley, where riesling thrives, Portugal’s Douro region and especially in Mendoza, Argentina where it contributes to malbec’s wild ‘n’ crazy success.
Gravel: Pebble soil appreciated for its ability to drain and renounced for a lack of alluvial sediments. In Bordeaux, on the left bank of the Garonne river, gravel soils reach a sort of viticulturist Valhalla: In fact, the appellation ‘Graves’ is named for its magical gravel. The result of deposits from Ice Age glaciers, the soil also contains a high proportion of white quartz to keep the wines acidic and fresh-tasting.
Joe Dirt: Unnaturally occurring soil made of Green Kleen Sweeping Compound, fireworks residue and organic substrates (e.g. mullet sperm) that are formed under mop-waterlogged conditions. These soils contain glass cleaner (predominantly Windex) which reacts with oxygen to form sulfuric acid that is used to to wash blue jeans.
Loam: A mix of clay, sand and silt in varying proportions, loam soils are porous when the proportion of sand is high, and super-fertile when then advantage goes to clay, although these moisture-retaining versions are tough to plow. Nearly all of the world’s vineyards contain a proportion of loam, lending texture and organic nutrition to the vineyard.
Sandstone: A warm and easy-draining soil made of tiny particles of sedimentary rock from the Triassic Era; it’s characteristic porosity requires irrigation of the part of vineyard managers, but they are rewarded with a soil that is inhospitable to phylloxera. Wines grown in sandstone reach amazing heights in Alsace, where they are credited with aiding and abetting that region’s intensely floral wine bouquets.
Slate: Formed when shale and clay are subjected to strong geothermic pressures, slate is an invaluable component in the soils of Germany’s chilly Mosel region: It warms quickly and retains heat throughout the night.
Tufa: A cousin to limestone, tufa is formed through a chemical reaction when carbonate minerals precipitates within ambient water sources. Over time, calcareous bedrock breaks down into a marvelously friable, finely-textured soil. In Loire, tufa is able to transform chenin blanc—a rather forgettable grape elsewhere—into transcendent, age-worthy wines.
Dirt Doesn’t Hurt, But Does It Really Re-Assert, or Just Play Curt?
It depends who you ask and who you are.
And among folks who label themselves ‘wine people’, the controversy rages like the subject of global warming, gay marriage and whether it was Oswald or George Bush, Sr. who shot JFK.
I can tell you in advance which side you support if you admit to me honestly which of these two geek profiles best fits your psycho-dynamics…
1) I am a Professor of Geology at Harvard University who did under-graduate work on the soil substrates underlying the world’s top vineyards. I am grounded in earth science, but have a keen sense of humor, as evidenced by that ‘ground/earth’ joke I just made. Five years ago, I went to Australia on a National Science Foundation post-doctoral fellowship to study the geological impact of kangaroo ejectamenta (shit) throughout Penfold’s shiraz vineyards, particularly those used to make Grange.
Despite my nerdy credentials, I am gregarious and well-liked by my colleagues, especially those of a feminine persuasion. When ‘rock’ hard, my penis is nine inches long, which converts to 228.6 millimeters.
I have concluded, and so published in The Journal Of The Geological Society of America, the following:
‘Chemicals taken up by the vine cannot register as minerality in the finished wines and geology has no effect on the detectable flavors in wine. Whatever sense of ‘minerality’ you detect, it is likely the result of a lack of fruitiness, not the the vineyard’s soil composition…’
2) I am a hopeless dweeb without friends who believes that the U.S. Government is hiding alien corpses in Building 84 at Roswell; I am awkward around human beings, but I do not possess the intelligence to fill my social oblivion with high-tech pursuits like robotics or knitting. I have a made-up girlfriend that I ‘say things to’ on Facebook. I am afraid of all grown-ups except for Randall Grahm, because I sense that we are birds of a feather. I believe anything he says. Such like:
‘Carignan, when bottled early, surtout en Stelvin, has a tendency to express a sort of stoniness—this is a manifestation of the phenomenon of minerality, especially in virtue of the age of the vines.’
To bolster his theory, Grahm performed a nerdly experiment in which he put rocks into full barrels of wine to see if mineral flavor and aromas would be communicated. His conclusion: ‘The stones had some effect on the wine, adding far more complexity and greater persistence to the palate.’
So there you have it: I have no doubt you side with the Professor, because nobody sane admits to siding with Randall, even if you like Bonny Doon.
But that isn’t even the point. The point is that in any methodical experiment meant to prove/disprove a hypothesis, it is not the observation (in this case, Pouilly-Fumé that tastes like gunflint or slate flavors in Dr. Loosen’s riesling) that is important: It is the principle behind the observation. Without a demonstrable viticultural theory as to why the phenomenon occurs, you may as well discount the tasting notes as the product of pre-conception, imagination, and/or copycat, limited-skill tasters.
According to Professor Alex Maltman, a geologist at Aberystwyth University in Wales, the notion that minerals absorbed from the soil make their way into the stemware, thus giving it local flavor is ‘a beguiling and simple idea that wine journalists love, but it not only isn’t true, it couldn’t be true: While wines may vary in the levels of dissolved mineral elements, the variations aren’t related to the levels of those elements in vineyard soil. More importantly, the concentration of minerals in wine is below the threshold of human taste and smell.’
Maybe so, Maltmilk, you patronizing poindexter—but mangez some marsupial merde anyway. I myself am a wine (anti-) journalist who does not love this beguiling and simple idea, and in fact, I am in the process of trying to blow it out of the tub.
And not for nothing? Instead of dirt, I would rather be writing about government conspiracies, UFOs and the fact that Welsh is the most absurd language on earth. I mean, really, Professor Maltliquor? Aberystwyth? On the banks of the Ystwyth? Near the towns of Llanbadarn Fawr, Penparcau and Comins Coch?
In any event, over a large number of iterations, the conclusion at which we have arrived: There is no explanation or predictive power for the null hypothesis that a specific terroir can be identified by taste and smell alone, and therefore, all old assumptions must be discounted.
Onward and upward, then; better living through chemistry; praise the Lord, you bastards: Pass the Bâtard-Montrachet.